Super PAC's move signals start of general campaign.
American Crossroads, the biggest of the GOP super PACs, plans to begin its first major anti-Obama advertising blitz of the year, a moment the president's campaign has been girding for and another sign that the general election is starting in earnest.
With an anticipated bank account of more than $200 million, officials at American Crossroads said they will probably begin their campaign this month. But they said they will focus the bulk of the first phase from May to July, which they believe is a critical period for making an impression on voters, before summer vacations and the party conventions take place.
Steven J. Law, the group's leader, said the ads will address the challenge of unseating a president who polls show is viewed favorably even though many people disapprove of his handling of the economy -- basically, Law said, "how to dislodge voters from him."
The ultimate goal, Law said, will be to create an opening to enable President Obama's defeat in November, by better connecting Americans' disappointment with the economy, especially among crucial swing voters, to their views of the president.
The Crossroads advertising push -- the timing of which has been the subject of avid speculation at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago -- would give the campaign of Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, the time and cover to map out its national organization, replenish its bank account and put the finishing touches on its own long-discussed advertising plan, which will highlight the economic pain of ordinary Americans.
Crossroads was founded with help from GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie -- the latter just signed on as an adviser to Romney -- and so far it has largely been sitting on the sidelines, studying the electorate and planning for the fall as the Republican nominating contest continued.
Its decision to enter now is helped by a growing perception that the Republican race is nearly over and that Romney is the presumed nominee. And Crossroads' planned intervention affirms predictions that the general election campaign will be fought in large part by proxy, via the super PACs, which have been emboldened by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 that helped pave the way for their creation.
Combined with expected activity from a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, and a Republican National Committee with better finances than expected, Crossroads is helping to ease fears among some Republicans that Obama's projected financial advantage -- with more than $80 million on hand and expectations to have raised at least $750 million all told -- would overwhelm Romney, who had $7.3 million on hand in his last filing report from February, especially at the start.
The prolonged and hard-fought nominating contest, Romney's advisers said, has put his campaign nearly two months behind on its initial plan to build political and field operations in the dozen states where both sides agree that most of the general election will be fought: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. (In the final phase of the campaign, Romney officials believe that the election could come down to just four states: Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.)
Republican elected officials and strategists acknowledged in interviews that Romney has significant ground to make up -- Obama leads in many early polls of swing states.
Gov. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, where Romney narrowly beat Santorum, said Romney needs to show that he can connect with voters and "demonstrate that he understands their problems." But, Kasich added, "There is going to be a part of the electorate that is a lot more interested in beating Obama than electing the Republican."
Democrats' gloom lifted
The Republican primary season, which veered into fights over contraception, abortion and immigration, has lifted the gloom Democrats had been feeling.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California said he became more optimistic about Obama's re-election chances after "the Republican primaries gave us these dramatic performances" that pushed Romney "farther and farther from the center of gravity in American politics."
Obama campaign aides said they would not give Romney any room to recover from what several polls show to be high unfavorable ratings. A new fusillade of commercials, Web videos and Twitter posts paint Romney as a disconnected businessman who favors the rich and will keep in place the approach that caused the financial crisis and put an unfair burden on the middle class and the poor.
But among the unknowns has been the effect of Republican super PACs, chief among them Crossroads. Obama has his own supportive super PAC, Priorities USA Action, which is now sifting through Romney's most embarrassing campaign moments for its expected volley of commercials.
But Priorities USA Action is not nearly as well-financed as its Republican rivals. The group and its issues-oriented partner, Priorities USA, raised $6.1 million last year, with donations from the film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers union.
American Crossroads and its affiliated Crossroads GPS raised $51 million last year, according to federal election filings, much of it from the conservative financier Harold C. Simmons and other wealthy donors with interests in coal, real estate and finance.
These groups will be formidable allies for Romney's campaign. Though they are legally prohibited from coordinating with his strategists, they are working on the same mission, to shift the debate away from issues of wealth inequality -- terrain that appears to favor Obama -- and toward what Stuart Stevens, a senior Romney strategist, said will be a referendum on the president and his promise of economic recovery.
"There's a sense of anxiety out there that's tremendous," Stevens said. "It's home heating costs, it's gas prices, the price of food is up. What about people's everyday lives is easier today than it was four years ago?"
But, Law said, Crossroads research suggests that Obama's campaign has started to gain traction among critical swing voters by arguing that Republicans, including Romney, favor an "economic plutocracy" in which middle-class voters can no longer count on financial security, even though they work hard and play by the rules.
"His argument is: 'The reason you feel bad is not because I've been an inadequate president but because the rules of the game are stacked against you,'" Law said.